NO DA Busted for Brady Violation

by Rick Wetzel on January 13, 2012

For the second time in two years, the Supreme Court considered the issue of prosecutorial misconduct involving the New Orleans District Attorney’s Office.  This week, in Smith v. Cain, the Court overturned Juan Smith’s five murder convictions because the prosecutor cheated before trial.

The facts

Smith was charged with killing five people during an armed robbery. At trial a single witness, Boatner, linked Smith to the crime. Boatner testified that he was socializing at a friend’s house when Smith and two other gunmen entered the home, demanded money and drugs, and shortly there­after began shooting, resulting in the death of five of Boatner’s friends. In court Boatner identified Smith as the first gunman to come through the door. He claimed that he had been face to face with Smith during the robbery. No other witnesses and no physi­cal evidence implicated Smith in the crime.

The non-disclosed evidence

Smith was convicted at trial and lost his criminal appeal.  His lawyer sought post-conviction habeas corpus relief in the state courts. As part of his effort, Smith obtained files from the police investigation of his case, including those of the lead investigator.  Notes from the detective contained statements by Boatner that conflicted with his tes­timony identifying Smith as a perpetrator. The notes from the night of the murder stated that Boatner could not supply a description of the perpetrators.  Five days after the crime, Boatner said he could not ID anyone because he couldn’t see faces and would not know them if he saw them again.   The information in the detective’s file was not supplied to Smith’s attorney before trial.

The duty violated

Under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U. S. 83 (1963), a prosecutor violates a defendant’s right to due process if he withholds evidence that is favorable to the defense and material to the defendant’s guilt or punish­ment.  Evidence is material within the meaning of Brady when there is a reasonable probability that, had the evidence been dis­closed, the result of the proceeding would have been dif­ferent. Cone v. Bell, 556 U. S. 449, 469–470 (2009). A reasonable probability does not mean that the defendant would more likely than not have received a different verdict with the evidence, only that the likelihood of a different result is great enough to undermine confidence in the outcome of the trial.  Kyles v. Whitley, 514 U. S. 419, 434 (1995).

The right result

The Supreme Court had little difficulty in finding the non-disclosed notes were favorable to Smith.  The Court also determined the notes were material because Boatner’s testimony was the only evidence linking Smith to the killings.  As a Texas criminal appeals lawyer, I appreciate seeing the correct result reached in this case and will be watching to see if the DA re-prosecutes Smith now that the whole story is known.

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